The Korean just made an interesting post about eye contact in Korean social settings. I thought it was interesting, not only because I was dealing with this earlier today, as I sat around the table at the coffee shop, straining to show interest in what the other teachers who are less familiar with me were saying (two of whom were head teachers), and also concentrating on their Korean, without it resulting in something that I already know would be considered quite disrespectful, but also because it's something that I've found to be changing, with my students.
My co-teachers, having mostly all spent some significant time abroad and around foreigners, are already aware of what eye contact means in Western culture, and I don't have to mind it so much around them. They're used to me, anyway, and when you get to know people, cultural differences such as this cease to be so important, because we start to judge people's actions by who we know them to be, rather than by their secondary social cues. But when I'm around the other teachers, especially the ones who don't speak English, it's a constant struggle.
I'm American -- when I'm concentrating hard on what someone is saying, I look them directly in the eyes. And when someone is speaking Korean, you better believe I'm having to concentrate. But I've had to learn to direct my eyes completely away in these cases, so that I'm staring at the table or my coffee cup. It's not even that the other teachers would think I was being disrespectful -- they know me better than that -- but it's quite literally distracting and uncomfortable to them.
On the other hand, eye contact is something that I do demand of my students, regardless of their own social training and cultural norms. I've discussed this at length with my closer co-teachers, because it was something I was quite concerned about in the beginning. The first I noticed it was the first few times I had to scold students. As anyone who has ever done the same in Korea knows, as soon as your voice turns stern, their eyes automatically shoot down. I come from a "look at me when I'm talking to you" culture. I realized right away, without being told, that this was a sign of respect here, not the opposite. But I struggled, at first, with being able to feel listened to when I was scolding the students, because I wasn't also being looked at.
Surprisingly, when I mentioned this to Old Co, she told me that, actually, she asks the students to look at her in the eyes when she's scolding them. She said that the looking down is old style, and she also feels as though she connects better with the students when there is established eye contact. I heard her tell the students the same thing many times, when her desk used to be next to mine in the office, and I was being paid a visit by naughty students after school. "She's American," she would tell them. "You must look at her eyes when she speaks to you." Knowing that I was extremely hesitant to ask this of them myself.
Now. In class, I'm famous for asking the students to "give me [their] eyes". When they get too rowdy and worked up and lose concentration, I won't move on with the lesson until I'm able to scan the classroom and make direct eye contact with every single one of them. I do the same thing when I'm about to explain the directions to a game or some other concept that I know is going to be difficult for them to understand. In that situation, I still feel like it's crucial to know that I have their full attention. When I'm scolding them, and they look down, it means something entirely different. When I ask for their eyes in class time, it means they are not looking at their book or their friend or their shoes or out the window, or at a million other super, super distracting things that can shoot their concentration all to hell and make them completely miss my directions.
The students have had absolutely no problems with this. They do get the concept of eye contact = attention. And when it's not one on one, they're not threatened by it. And it works wonders. I no longer have to explain something in front of the entire class, and then follow it by walking around and explaining it again to each table individually. They need to watch me in class to understand what the fuck is going on. My gestures and facial expressions are key to their comprehension. And although they do mostly all start out looking down when I speak to them one on one, they come around with time to looking me in the eye quite naturally when we talk outside of class. And now, after I'm finished with the scolding part of any punishment, and they've been sufficiently shamed, or whatever, I have them sit down and explain themselves to me, while looking me in the eye. Their demeanor changes and they relax. It's not a challenge to my authority, but a signal to them that now we are having a conversation and it's their turn to make me understand something, to say whatever it is they may have to say.
It's not a completely foreign concept. But it has been one that has been interesting to learn how to navigate. There's always a fine line in any given culture between adapting yourself and having those around you adapt to relating to you. Eye contact has definitely been one of the most tangible examples of that since I arrived.
That having been said, I never do more than a quick sideswipe upward toward the principal. There are some lines you just don't cross.